Pure by Julianna Baggott is a disturbing book. It is set in the future in the Baltimore area after a terrible series of Detonations have turned the landscape to rubble and damaged everyone not destroyed by the blasts. In view of the ruined city stands a sealed Dome containing survivors who escaped the bombs.
It is nine years since the Detonations. The survivors are horribly damaged. Everyone has burns and embedded glass and metal. The bombs had the ability to merge living flesh and inanimate objects. The main character, Pressia, who is sixteen, was holding a doll when the bombs hit. The doll’s head has taken the place of her left hand. It has become a part of her; when she tries to cut it off, it bleeds. A young man named Bradwell has a living flock of birds in his back; they rustle their wings underneath the shirt he wears over them. A soldier was riding on a motorcycle with his brother behind him when the bombs went off; his brother is now merged into his back, the brother’s arms hanging around his neck.
Those who live outside the Dome eke out a meager living while trying to avoid being killed by Dusts – those who fused with the earth, now more rock than human. At the age of sixteen, the OSR – originally Operation Search and Rescue, now Operation Sacred Revolution – takes you away. No one knows what happens once you are taken, but Pressia is determined to escape the OSR.
Those who live inside the Dome and escaped damage from the blasts are called Pures by the survivors outside. They attend class, eat only pills formulated for optimal health, and undergo “coding.” Not surprisingly, those outside the Dome hate the Pures. When Partridge, one of the Pures, escapes to see if he can find his mother outside the Dome, he meets up with Pressia and Bradwell, and the three begin to question everything they’ve been told about the Detonations and life on the other side.
I had a hard time moving forward with this book. I was very reluctant to keep reading. Just when I thought the images couldn’t get any more disturbing, a passage would prove me wrong. About 60 pages in I was ready to stop reading. The book seemed bleak and humorless. The imagery struck me as heavy-handed. However, I read a stellar review of Pure and decided to keep going. I began to know and care about the characters. Tiny glimpses of humor emerged periodically.
Pure is being compared to The Hunger Games. Although the premise of Hunger Games – teenagers fighting to the death on a reality show – is also disturbing, I found it much easier to read than Pure (which is also the first book in a trilogy). In her acknowledgements, the author notes that she researched the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki while writing Pure and adds, “I hope, in general, that Pure directs people to nonfiction accounts of the atomic bomb – horrors we cannot afford to forget.” I wish I’d read that before I started the book. It sheds a lot of light on where the anguish and horror of Pure is coming from.
As I said, Pure is a profoundly disturbing book. I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed it. But I did get caught up in the characters and the circumstances, and I’m glad I stuck with it. I will be reading the sequels. Anyone who likes to read dystopian novels and can handle disturbing themes and images should give Pure a try.